A refugee's escape from hell

With rumors of peace, Serbs are making a last-ditch attempt to change the ethnic mix inside Kosovo forever.

Laura Rozen
June 2, 1999 4:21PM (UTC)

Stepping out of my shoes, and into a tent in this sprawling refugee camp in western Macedonia, I am suddenly face to face with men who have the look of concentration camp survivors. Their bodies are emaciated, and they carry the scars of the beatings and torture they experienced over the past month at the Lipjan prison in central Kosovo. It is the eyes of the men that are most haunting, though, reflecting the ineffable trauma suffered at the hands of Serbian police.

One tall, painfully skinny man, who is probably in his early
30s, keeps going through the same motions over and over -- opening up a small box to touch the things donated by relief groups to each of the 51 men who arrived here two days ago after a month in hell. The box contains a
children's notebook, a pen, a fresh set of gray pants, a pair of socks, a belt and a striped polo shirt, all still in their plastic wrappings. After he touches the items, he closes the box, gets up and walks around, agitated. After a few minutes, he again opens the box and repeats each step.


These men were part of a group separated from a convoy of 7,000 Albanians fleeing from the northeastern Kosovo city of Podujevo on May 2. They say they were robbed, imprisoned, starved and beaten unconscious in a Serbian prison in an attempt to force them to confess to knowledge of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

They say they were held, dozens to a cell, forced to kneel with their heads down and their arms behind their backs for hours at a time. Prison guards chose one man in each cell to be in charge, and threatened that if there were any sound of talking they would beat these "leaders" to death, according to the ex-prisoners. Then, several days ago, this group of 51 was suddenly released and driven toward the border.

One middle-aged man tries on his new shirt, revealing spotty blood-red
bruises on his upper arms and back from the beatings he received.


Others hold up gray pants to each other to decide who might fit into what size. Some very slowly lace shoelaces into the new pairs of tennis shoes each of them has been given.

Watching as they struggle to accomplish these simple tasks, my
translator, who is himself a refugee from Pristina, begins to cry. He has been trying to sustain a conversation with these men, but they seem to have lost the art of conversation, though not their deeply ingrained habits of hospitality. They offer visitors to their refugee tent plastic cups of juice as well as some of the high-protein biscuits they have been given in an effort to help them regain lost weight.

Shefqez K., a mustachioed, white-haired, 57-year-old who is the informal
leader of the group, sits on a blanket in the center of the
tent, surrounded by the others. He says he weighed 105 kilograms (about
230 pounds) six weeks before, and now estimates he weighs 70 kilos (160
pounds). We agree not to publish his last name out of his concern that
family members still in Kosovo might be endangered if we did so.


"The kind of treatment they used on us has not been used since the 16th
century," Shefqez says. "These things should not be happening at the end of the 20th century, at the beginning of the 21st century," he says, shaking his head.

Shefqez estimates that approximately 20,000 Kosovo Albanian men have been recently detained in life-threatening conditions as part of an
intensified campaign by Serbian forces to root out the KLA before a rumored peace agreement can take hold.


Shefqez says the men come from a group of Albanians ordered out of their homes in villages near Kosovo's northeastern border with Serbia on March 23 by KLA units who said they intended to defend
their front line. The villagers joined into a convoy heading southeast
in a long column.

At the village of Vranito, near Pristina, Shefqez says, Serbian police wearing their standard uniform of dark blue camouflage selected men from
the convoy and separated them from their families and ordered them to run to
a nearby warehouse.

"The police stopped the first tractor and pointed 'You!'" said Shefqez,
the other men nodding. "Then we must run to the warehouse as fast as we
can. The police officer went from the first tractor, all the way down the
column, separating men from their families. All 51 of us were separated
from our families that day, and sent to the prison at Lipjan" with some 55
other men, who are apparently still in the Lipjan prison.


The Albanian men were ordered into the fenced-in yard of a warehouse and
ordered to stand with their hands behind their backs and their heads down.
Shefqez stands up to demonstrate.

Then, he says, two men from their group were taken into a small
office and beaten as one beats a "dead animal."

"The police told us, 'You all will go through this beating,'" Shefqez says.
"They said, 'May NATO's army come and see you.' They told us this because
we were near a bridge NATO bombs had destroyed."


One of the ex-prisoners listening to the story in the tent said he
recognized one of the Serbian police officers who had beaten them at the
warehouse as a man named Zoran, about 40 years old, who had worked at the
police station in Vranjevac, in the Pristina municipality.

Ordered through a gantlet of Serbian police beating them with wooden clubs
onto two buses, the men were taken to basement cells in the main police
station in Pristina, forced to give up all their money, wedding rings,
watches, belts and any other valuables, and then beaten and interrogated. The rooms where
they were interrogated and beaten in Pristina had "blood on the walls," Shefqez says, as police held men by the neck and forced their heads into the walls.

Several of the men were dragged back to their cells unconscious, he says.

On May 3, the men were transferred in three groups to Lipjan prison, where
the prison guards offered the prison's Serbian and Montenegrin inmates the
opportunity to "take out all their anger" by beating the Albanians.


"We all lost consciousness. They dragged us back to our cells. None of us
were well enough to help our friends, not even to offer them a drop of
water," Shefqez says.

The men had been giving nothing to eat or drink for 48 hours.

When Shefqez begins to talk about the hunger, several of the men in the
tent grow more agitated. One man grabs a loaf of bread, taking pains to
show how each man was only given a quarter of a loaf for a day -- about 150
grams each a day -- and occasionally a little bit of soup that the men were
afraid to eat because it made them nauseous.

A girl of about 15 comes to the flap door of the tent. One of the
ex-prisoners, his shaved head just starting to grow back brown hair, begins
smiling broadly. It is the first smile we have seen in
this tent. The ex-prisoner, Rexhep G., says when he came to this camp
two days ago and appeared at the tent where the girl -- his daughter Mimosa
-- was preparing a meal, she turned to him, and said, "Is it possible? We
all thought you were dead."


"It was the happiest day of my life," Gashi says, beaming. His son is also
alive and in the camp, and joins us in the tent a short time later. His
wife and other daughter are in a nearby camp, Cegrene, and they are all soon to
be reunited.

The happy moment fades as Shefqez continues with their story. He says May 5 was the worst day of his life.

"That day the torture was so bad, I told the Serbian guards, just shoot me,"
Shefqez says.

A Serbian guard is reported to have put his pistol into the mouth of a prisoner and pulled the trigger, but no bullet was in the chamber. At this point, Shefqez
says, many of the men were begging to be shot.


On May 9, Serbian investigators came to the prison
and interrogated them, at first offering those they were interrogating
cigarettes and teasing conversation, then switching to violent means, which ended up with the men's hands and legs beaten and swollen.
Afterward, the prisoners said, they tried to wet their clothes to help their wounds heal.

According to the ex-prisoners, interrogators repeatedly asked them, "How
many sons do you have in the KLA? Tell us the truth, who is the leader? Are
your daughters in the KLA also?"

The obsessive Serbian interrogations seem to be part of a
last-ditch attempt by Serbian forces to go after the KLA in what may be the
approach of the end to the Serbian occupation of Kosovo. More than 1 million Kosovo Albanians have been driven from their homes, and there have been 70 days
of NATO airstrikes. But analysts say even with a peace agreement, not all
of the Kosovo Albanians who have been expelled from Kosovo will return.
They say the terror Serbian forces employed -- and used against men such as
these refugees -- is part of a deliberate campaign to scare Kosovo Albanians from ever coming back.

"The Serbian police who did this want only one thing. They want to see these
men suffer," said Dukaxhin Hyseni, a camp administrator for the Portland,
Ore., -based NGO Mercy Corps International, which runs the Senokos refugee
camp. "They don't necessarily want to see
them dead. After the three weeks that these men spent in prison, it will
take them 10 years of going to a psychiatrist to be normal again."

Shefqez says if he had his son with him, he would tell him the full story
of what happened, and it would be "more than 5,000 pages."

"If we had a camera, if a man could have recorded what has been done to
us," Shefqez says, "there is no man who could be able to watch it all the
way through. There is no man who would be able to do all that was done to

With peace now looming in Kosovo, Shefqez says he and the other refugees would support the proposed agreement, if only to save the lives of the people they have left behind in Kosovo, including
thousands of Kosovo Albanians being held in the prisons and used as human shields by the Serbs.

Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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